Monday, April 13, 2015

Big hats, little jockeys, and million-dollar thoroughbreds; a look at the storied Kentucky Derby.

“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.” 
—John Steinbeck

Every first Saturday in May, the placid green paddock at Churchill Downs bursts to life for the world’s most fleeting and celebrated race – the Kentucky Derby. With horses that are called the most prolific athletes in any sport, owners who spend tens of millions of dollars on the right horse, jockey, and training, and a fan base who that has included the oldest families in America, movie stars and celebrities, royalty from other countries, and plenty of floppy, colorful hats, this horse race never fails to entertain and amaze.

In fact, the Kentucky Derby is a 1.25-mile race for thoroughbred horses, the most prestigious race of its kind, regularly drawing upwards of 150,000 spectators, partygoers, and horse racing enthusiasts. 

The Derby is also commonly known as, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” or “The Run For The Roses,” the latter name derived from the custom of draping the winning horse and jockey in a blanket of 554 colorful roses each year, a tradition goes all the way back to 1883, when New York socialite E. Berry Wall presented roses to ladies at a Derby party.

The honor of participating is as exclusive as it is prestigious, as only the 20 best horses can run each year, based on qualification from graded stakes earnings during the rest of the year. Of the 35,000 thoroughbreds in the world, the 400 best are nominated for consideration by their owners, and then the best 20 are selected. The Kentucky Derby now only allows three-year old thoroughbreds to run.

Steeped in tradition, the Kentucky Derby started in 1875 when a crowd of 10,000 fans watched 15 thoroughbreds bolt a 1.5-mile track with the equine athlete, Aristides, and his jockey, Oliver Lewis, taking the first prize. The race was the brainchild of Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition in American history. Col. Clark, Jr. had just visited England and France and experienced the biggest horse racing events in those countries, the Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris.

When he returned home to Kentucky, he immediately organized the Louisville Jockey Club in order to organize a similar event on U.S. soil and raise funds for a racing facility.  They accomplished that the next year and the race has been running unfettered every year since, with the only major change coming in 1876 when they changed the course to 1.25 miles and eventually expanded to 20 horses, not 15.

The racing facility that Col. Clark, Jr. dreamed up and brought to fruition was called Churchill Downs, a beautiful track and grounds outside the city of Louisville that was officially incorporated in 1937. But by no means was horse racing new to Kentucky, as the Bluegrass state was a hotbed of racing and horse breeding in the country since before the United States of America was a nation.

So who are some of the top performers of all time at the Kentucky Derby? Here are some prominent records:

Fastest stakes time:
1:59.40 - Secretariat (1973)
(A sub-2- minute time has only been achieved one other time, by Monarchos in 2001 who ran a 1:59.97.)

The largest margin of victory:
8 lengths - Assault (1946)
8 lengths - Whirlaway (1941)

Most wins by a jockey:
5 - Eddie Arcaro (1938, 1941, 1945, 1948, 1952)
5 - Bill Hartack (1957, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1969)

Most wins by a trainer:
6 - Ben A. Jones (1938, 1941, 1944, 1948, 1949, 1952)

Most wins by an owner:
8 - Calumet Farm (1941, 1944, 1948, 1949, 1952, 1957, 1958, 1968)

The first woman jockey:
In 1970, Diane Crump became the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby. She finished 15th in the race while riding Fathom.

The longest shot to win the Derby:
91 to 1 - Donerail (1913)

If the Kentucky Derby wasn’t exciting enough, the chance to pursue the vaulted Triple Crown of horse racing adds to the intrigue. If a horse wins the Derby and then the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York later that year, they’ve completed the historic Triple Crown, a term coined by a sportswriter named Charles Hatton in 1930. Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978).

Betting on the outcome of the fastest two minutes in sports is not only big business, it’s Derby tradition. Every year, the Kentucky Derby is the most bet on horse race in the U.S., with the biggest betting year in Derby history coming in 2012 with $133.5 million. And that number is just in-track betting, as betting is rampant at Off Track Betting facilities, casinos, Derby parties, and online, all around the world.

And maybe that’s why the Kentucky Derby is so beloved, crossing over to casual fans who never even watch another horse race all year; it’s easily the most participatory sporting even you’ll find. There are just as many endearing traditions for the fans and observers as the racers.

Even the horses names are fun, inexplicably adding personality and humor to the incommunicado and hard working horses. Riding Miss Daisy, Mookie’s Runnin, Whatamichoppedliver, You're My Boy Blue, and That's Whatshesaid are actual names of recent Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds, and that list could go on and on.

During that weekend the infield at Churchill Downs becomes the biggest Kentucky Derby party in the world. Sipping on Mint Juleps, the official drink of Derby parties around the world, women wear outlandish and elegant hats, hoping to gain notice during the annual Derby Hat Parade. And even if you can’t afford to sit and watch the race in Millionaire’s Row at the Downs, you can pick a horse and watch the race at home with friends at one of the many Kentucky Derby parties that pop up as a growing spring tradition. 

This year the Derby falls on Saturday, May 2nd. Experts are looking at a handful of horses as potential favorites, including American Pharoah, Dortmund, Carpe Diem, Frosted, and Mubtaahij. You can find out more at


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